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A Good Deal for Imperial

October 21, 2002

Imperial County officials are crying "water rape"--yes, those are the words a county supervisor used after attending water trade negotiations last week. They complain of being forced at metaphorical gunpoint to surrender their water supplies. They talk of Los Angeles' theft of Owens Valley water a century ago. They lament the idling of rich farmland so the city folk can fill their swimming pools.

These complaints have not a shred of reality behind them. The tentative water trade forged last week between Imperial and urban San Diego County is a good deal for both sides. Rather than hurting the rich farming oasis in the southeastern California desert, it should boost the Imperial County economy.

The San Diego County Water Authority has agreed to pay the Imperial Irrigation District a base price of $258 an acre-foot for water that costs the farmers $15.50 an acre-foot, roughly the amount two families would consume in a year.

As many as 30,000 of the 450,000 acres of farmland now irrigated with Colorado River water would be temporarily fallowed each year. Farmers dislike the idea, but the fallowing is voluntary and farmers would be compensated for water saved.

Imperial County suffers chronic unemployment of 20% or more, and the fallowing could eliminate some jobs, for instance in farm-supply businesses. But Imperial would collect $2 billion over the 75-year life of the contract, plus $20 million specifically to ease any economic losses. In return, Imperial would give up only 4% of its Colorado River water supply, which could be offset with conservation programs.

The deal, achieved in a last-ditch flurry of negotiations led by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), saves enough water to avert a federal cutoff of Colorado River water to urban Southern California. It's a far cry from what happened in the Owens Valley, where Los Angeles secretly bought up land for water rights early in the 20th century. Imperial went into these negotiations with eyes wide open and with plenty of legal savvy at its disposal.

Ratification by the Imperial Irrigation District board is not certain. If the board rejects the water transfer, Southern California cities will bear the punishing brunt of mandatory federal cuts in the state's use of Colorado River water. Imperial has told the cities it's their problem. But federal officials have also raised the prospect of trimming Imperial's allotment because the district wastes water. If that happens, Imperial County will be out the water with no money to show for it.

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